"I'm so happy to be the coach of the New Mexico Lobos," said Neal as he finished his opening statement, smiling broad and bright while wearing the cherry red coaches blazer that has become a symbol of the program since Neal and his former boss, Steve Alford, came to Albuquerque six years ago.
Neal was officially introduced Wednesday as the new head coach of the Lobos by athletic director Paul Krebs before the media and a large and often boisterous group of boosters and fans.
"Continuity is really important," said Krebs during his opening statement. "And next year is really important, the following year and the year after that and the year after that are equally important. So continuity for continuity's sake really didn't matter to me. Continuity with the right leader is what mattered."
Neal's contract, as laid out in the term sheet handed out at the press conference, is set for five years with a base salary of $750,000, with additional incentives for winning Mountain West Conference regular season conference tournament championships, advancing in the NCAA tournament as well as student-athletes reaching academic goals.
The announcement was a relief to both fans – who built a groundswell of support for Neal that included a Facebook page advocating the coaches hire – as well as the players, who junior Kendall Williams said were largely happy with the hire.
"On Saturday morning we were left with no coach and we had a lot of things to wonder about – to (ask) questions about," said Williams, who was among the Lobo players who came to the press conference. "And now hiring coach Neal, it's great for everyone. But I still think it opens a lot of gates for people. People have to make a lot of decisions still."
Krebs said he spent much of the time between Steve Alford's announcement that he was leaving UNM Saturday and the hour-long meeting Tuesday afternoon where he and UNM president Robert Frank offered Neal the head coaching job, taking phone calls as well as conducting the search for a new coach. And one conversation stuck out.
"I had a well-known, well-respected basketball individual (on the phone and) when I asked him about Coach Neal his words were ‘(Craig) has a Ph.D in basketball.' And I thought that was very appropriate. It involves more than X's and O's. (It's) six years of really on-the-job training, preparation…
"After a thorough review I feel very confident in Coach Neal, his skills, his abilities… not just as a basketball coach (but) as a leader," concluded Krebs.
Like Krebs, Neal also talked to a lot of people – including former players for many eras of Lobos basketball including Hunter Greene, Mel Daniels, Kenny Thomas, Darrington Hobson, Dairese Gary. He said the calls were all very helpful as well as appreciated.
Neal takes over a team that won both the Mountain West regular season title as well as the tournament title and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round of the tournament to finish 29-6.
Neal referenced that in looking forward to his first season as head coach.
"Like I told the (the team) in our first team meeting, we've got a lot of unfinished business," said Neal. "And we've got a lot of goals and a lot of things we've got to do and I just want to be there for them and help them reach their goals."